The Unitarian Universalist Association was rocked this spring by revelations about their hiring practices and how few people of color it employs. It is a system which favors white ministers. Suddenly the liberal religion was turned upside down. The President, Peter Morales, quit and was replaced by three people of color who served on an interim basis. The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists became an increasingly important force for change. There was the news that the Board of Directors made a commitment of financial support to the Black Lives Matter group which surprised many white people. And the denomination began a self-examination to understand the ways in which white supremacy governed how it operated. There was a series of white supremacy services in churches across the country, including the First Unitarian Society. It was in the midst of this change that the leader of the Black Lives Matter at the church, Mary Devitt, decided it no longer made sense for her as a white woman to be in charge of the group and asked me if I would become the chair. Mary had been very active building relationships with all sorts of groups. I attended some events and was not involved in marching. I wrote a humorous blog post about the transition called Welcome Back which hearkened back to an old television show about a white teacher who returned to the school he used to attend.
The Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists were very active in helping to raise money, which I learned about at the GA. I spent time watching videos from the Church of the Larger Fellowship which is an organization of Unitarian Universalists who are not affiliated with any congregation. I engaged on-line with the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and saw some of their videos from a gathering they held in New Orleans. I wondered what was going on and how could I fit in. It soon developed that there was one delegate credential left and there was a movement to reach out and make it possible to help cover the costs of people of color like me. I wondered how this GA would be different from those in the past. My long time friends at First Church encouraged me to go. And the outgoing development director sent an email about the fundraising and encouraged me to apply for a scholarship. I was sending emails and text messages and posting on Facebook up until a couple of days before I was supposed to leave. Despite the fact I had worries that things were not going to work out, a group called Standing on the Side of Love, handled arrangements getting us to New Orleans, providing spending money and finding a room in a hotel right across from the General Assembly.
The other part of how I got to GA is much more mundane. I have a full-time job with benefits including vacation. I discovered that the GA would coincide with our annual employee retreat but that was not a problem. My vacation was granted without a hassle. So, if you have understanding and compassion surrounding you, it is possible to do things. You can have support from the congregation. You can get the funds that you need to go. And you can rest assured that your job will be there when you return. In a lot of ways, it helped me feel that my life mattered.
In June, I went to my first General Assembly, which is the annual membership meeting o the Unitarian Universalist Association. It was a electric experience. I thought to myself, after so many years of identifying as an atheist, I really am part of a religion. A very particular type of religion with certain basic tenets and and a wide amount of choice. This revelation comes after meeting with a dear friend recently who discovered the very same thing. The Unitarian Universalists lack a lot of things tat hold churches together. There is no fear of going to hell. In fact that was one of the things that drew the Universalists together. If there is no fear of eternal damnation, how do you hold people together?
I found in this gathering a lot of what holds us together. It is love. We have people who pray. We have people who are recovering from traditional Christianity. My friend is healing herself after having been part of a very strict cult similar to the Seventh Day Adventists and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. And, as the joke goes, “there are a lot of atheists who haven’t kicked the religion habit.”
One of my favorite hymns includes a line “even to question, truly, is an answer.” Going to General Assembly exposed me to a wide variety of African-Americans. I saw people who were part of a walkout many years ago when the church lost thousands of African-American members over its failure to follow through on a commitment it had made to them. I saw people the the Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists and the Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Ministries. In my upcoming blogs I will describe some of these experiences in great detail. There is always more to the story.
I am reading this book by Ngozi Adichie that was a major best seller. It is the second book I have been reading since buying new glasses last week. I had been struggling with reading previously often crying as I tried to read. I took off my glasses because apparently the part of the lens where one does close reading was too small. There was much about my eyes that was unknown to me. It seems that I am not very good in buying glasses, sometimes keeping them way past the time when they are to be discarded. Other times getting glasses that don’t fit and look ridiculous. Now I have good glasses, my eyes are dry and the streets are damp. Now to find out why everyone is reading this book.
My first Nigerian novelist was the much beloved Chinua Achebe who made me feel the struggle of Africa being ripped apart by colonizers. I read him when I was in college either running from the police or trying to find a girl friend. Now I have these new glasses which make me feel like reading and writing once more. The book puzzles me as it seems to make a lot of jumps in place and time. At first, the main character Ifemelu is a smart mouthed blogger in America getting ready to return home to rekindle an old relationship and being tortured by an African hair braider who seems to be having a mental breakdown. Then she is a child enduring her mother’s religious fantasies in Nigeria. I will see where this leads.
In another step towards changing over from being an ad hoc “cabal” to a formal committee I asked for and received the names and contact information of the people who have been a part of the group. I was pleasantly surprised that there were about a dozen people. This is a testimony to Mary’s organizational skills. While she may seem like one of those flaky white liberals just running around doing thins, the fact is she helped create some pretty impressive events. The question is, what to do with all of the energy that she has helped create? Where does it go?
I will be busy sending out an email informing people of the changeover and and finding a date for our first meeting. Next week I will be attending the my first meeting of the social justice council as the chair of the new black lives committee. Once more into the breach.
This post is to announce that I am returning to leadership within Unitarian Universalism. Many years ago I chaired the racial justice committee. That committee promoted diversity, organized a Kwanzaa event, organized a drum circle and tried to change the church culture. Unfortunately, the committee seemed to attract the same core group of people. I underwent a personal transformation that led to a divorce, and the development of a whole new career as a certified peer specialist. There were years in which I was barely active.
The committee was dissolved but in recent years new people have entered the church with a different set of ideas. One person in particular Mary Devitt has been a catalyst under the banner of Black Lives Matter. Mary has involved the First Unitarians in several events, most recently organizing a showing of a film about the 53206 neighborhood, which focused on the impact of mass incarceration on the low income community. She was also in the campaigns to change police practices after the killings of black men by police in Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Her most recent accomplishment was a workshop on racial justice at Alverno College that featured Chris Crass, a speaker from Kentucky. Over 350 people attended the event which was organized with a remarkable coalition.
Mary has been a sort of one woman committee within the church which lead to her being given a designation as a change agent. At the same time Mary recognized that it was problematic for her to be in charge of black lives matter. She has what she calls her “cabal” that she can pull together on an ad hoc basis to achieve goals. However, that could easily lead to burn out. So we began a conversation this week about my leading a transformation of the black lives matter cabal into a committee to carry on the things she has started.
I have agreed to take this on at a time of turmoil within the Unitarian Universalist movement. There is more happening every day and it demands that someone from Milwaukee help give direction. The UU is a place where I feel comfortable sometimes. When my allies aren’t present and people ask me, where have I been, I feel like becoming invisible. That needs to change. A lot needs to change. Let the drum speak.
I have been watching videos of a remarkable church in Washington DC the All Souls Unitarian. It is an intentionally multi ethnic multi cultural church that rocks. All Souls is a historic church that has been in forefront of struggles for civil rights. It has a staff that is a mosaic and the services, as far as I can see, are often lively. It is a welcoming place to be and I would hope that other churches would take a lesson. I have posted many of their you tube videos on my facebook page. This is the first time I have ever posted something like this about attending church!
When I returned to the website of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee I saw information about events that the church made been organizing around the issue of Black Lives Matter. And so I felt more motivated. And I went for a walk. I had read that everything political starts with a personal choice. There was a movie on PBS by a man who lost his father to diabetes and his father was around my age. My heart skips a beat when I hear that people in my age group are dying from preventable diseases. The best way I can act as if I believe my my matters is my taking care of it.
Today I am proud to say I met my fitness goals. I am taking good care of the body my parents gave me. Almost as important, I sent a text message to a dear friend whose support helped me through a difficult time in my life. I said never underestimate the power of friendship. Patricia Raybon talked about the need for interracial friendships. I think this is something we need throughout our lives. We must maintain empathy for people who look and speak differently from ourselves.
It is true that we share different parts of ourselves with the people we meet. At the all black office where I am located most of the time, I talk with them about the Fondy Market a place where we can meet positive people including those who look like us. This is important because unfortunately in mental health, we are often dealing with people who are at their worst. That is why we need their help.
At the church I am a quirky older man who pops in once in a blue moon.
But what am I to you and why are you reading me?